Why Great Days on the Water Are Hard to Remember

Great days on the water are hard to remember. They just are. Last summer, Dave and I had one of our best days ever on the water. A friend invited us to fish a creek in a remote area of Montana. We fished a stretch that meandered through a large ranch, miles from any fishing access. In recent years, the ranch owners have allowed few people to fish on their property. They have saved it for veterans, particularly wounded warriors.

But thanks to our friend, Dave and I were invited to spend a day on the creek.

Slow to Crazy

The day began slow, with a trico hatch that, as Dave said, “I just didn’t have the energy to fish.” Tricos are so small, and we came prepared to fish terrestrials, the big bugs. This was one of the last days of July, and it was warm. The creek was small, but we wore waders, in case we stumbled across a sunning rattlesnake.

About mid morning, the trout began to rise to hoppers – and just about anything else that was big and floated. And they never stopped. By mid-afternoon, Dave and I had each landed over forty trout apiece. They were mostly browns and rainbows, most in the 14-16 inch range. We also landed a few brookies and a couple West Slope Cutthroat.

The crazy thing is that I can’t recall any particular fish I caught. That’s unusual. I usually remember the 17-inch brown that emerged from an undercut bank to attack my hopper pattern. Or the 16-inch rainbow that darted to the surface to snatch a Royal Trude as it drifted by a rock. However, I don’t remember anything like that. I have a couple photos of rainbows I caught. Both are striking fish with their crimson stripes against their dark bodies. But I don’t recall catching either one of them.

Great Days on the Water and Angler’s Amnesia

So why do I seem to have angler’s amnesia when it comes to those fish? I have some theories:

First, I think my inability to remember a particular fish was due in part to sensory overload. Catching 40+ fish is an exhilarating experience. I highly recommend it, and I would love to do it again. But the more fish you catch, the less any particular fish leaves an indelible mark on your memory. Maybe that’s the beauty of days when you catch only a half-dozen fish, and one of them is a plump nineteen-incher. I caught a rainbow trout like that a decade ago between Quake and Hebgen Lake. I fished all morning and only caught one other trout. Oddly enough, I remember that fish vividly, while 40+ trout I caught a few months ago have seemingly vanished from my memory.

Second, I think the surroundings had something to do with my case of angler’s amnesia.

I was more captivated by what I saw around me than I was by any particular fish. What I remember from that day is landing a trout right under the railroad trestle where a scene from “A River Runs Through It” was filmed, where Jessie drives her Model T through a tunnel with Norman hanging on for his life in the passenger seat. I also remember the sight of an old trapper’s cabin. And then there was the railroad bed over which the Ringling Brothers used to haul their circus equipment to their ranch for winter storage. The two railroad tunnels were stunning, too.

Third, I think the human imagination struggles to preserve sharp images of what moves us most, including our most poignant memories.

A few miles from the ranch where Dave and I had our banner day, the south fork of the little creek we fished curls by a knoll on which a sheepherder’s cabin is perched. Western writer extraordinaire, Ivan Doig, was in the cabin on his sixth birthday with his parents when his mother took her last breath.

Asthma claimed her life.

Doig writes about his struggle to remember the event in a haunting sentence near the beginning of his memoir, This House of Sky:

    Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which have me face about and forget, to feel into those oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.

Every momentous event in life is a bit like that for me. I try reach around the photos or the accounts of family members in an attempt to relive memories which are trying to elude me.

Beautiful Memory Loss

So the next time you have an unforgettable day but forget the details, be assured that you’re not experiencing memory loss. You might simply have sensory overload. Or maybe your day was full scenery or experiences more remarkable than the fish you caught. Or maybe it’s the common human struggle to recall vivid images of life’s most momentous events.

Whatever the case, your inability to remember the fish you caught adds to the mystique of your experience and makes it unforgettable.